The Entry Level #15

A cold, rainy winter day had calmly turned into a cold, rainy winter night—perfect for listening to Mercury Rev's dark masterpiece, Deserter's Songs. Originally released in 1998 (CD, V2 VVR1002771), during my junior year in college, the album, like so many of my old favorites, has recently been reissued on vinyl (LP, Modern Classics/Light in the Attic MCR 900). As with everything released by Light in the Attic, the quality is superb: The thick, glossy gatefold jacket features a perfect reproduction of the original artwork, and the quiet, 180gm LP is housed in an old-fashioned paper sleeve. A handsome four-page insert includes photographs, lyrics, and the complete liner notes, while a download code provides access to two live tracks and a fascinating interview with the band's lead songwriters, Jonathan Donahue and Grasshopper. Finally and most important, Deserter's Songs has been lovingly remastered by the original coproducer, Dave Fridmann. The album sounds as urgent as ever, born from as much ambition and abandon, and only more wonderful and compelling.

So it was with a special kind of excitement that I introduced to my system the Parasound Zphono•USB phono preamplifier ($349), cued up my new copy of Deserter's Songs, and hurried back to my orange couch before the stylus could hit the lead-in groove. In that moment before the music emerged, when my listening room ballooned with a sweet, heavy silence and the enormous winter moon poured through my white curtains to expose the cracks in my tired walls, I wondered if I would be disappointed.

Earlier that day, I had accompanied John Atkinson to Michael Fremer's lovely home in the thickly wooded suburbs of northern New Jersey, to run a full set of measurements on the MBL Radialstrahler 101E Mk.II loudspeakers ($70,500/pair; review to appear in an upcoming issue). Just prior to the tests, while JA positioned microphones, I tiptoed around Mikey's famously messy listening room, carefully avoiding jewel cases, power amplifiers, and speaker cables, and marveling at all the stuff. Nearly every inch of the place was covered in music and gear.

"Wanna listen to something?" Mikey asked.

"Yeah," I said, taking a seat. "Do you have the new Mercury Rev reissue?"

"I don't have the new one," Mikey said, "but I've got an original. Wanna hear 'Holes'?"

Amid all the chaos and clutter, Mikey quickly located the record and cued it up on his Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn turntable, fitted with a Continuum Cobra tonearm and Ortofon A90 moving-coil cartridge. Mikey's Musical Fidelity Titan power amplifier drove the MBLs via TARA Labs Omega Gold speaker cable. The preamplifier and phono preamp were Ypsilon's PST-100 Mk.II and VPS-100 Mk.II, respectively. Interconnects were TARA Labs Zero. I did the math in my head: A system like this would cost well over $400,000—yikes!—a lot of money by just about any standard.

When I listen to music at Mikey's, I expect to be extremely impressed. On this occasion, what first caught my attention was the force with which notes emerged on the stage and the grace with which they faded away: Garth Hudson's tenor and alto sax solos, for instance, were fluid and poetic, beautifully and fully expressed. But perhaps even more impressive was the system's ability to envelop me in sound. Everything just seemed so big and present, creating a remarkably physical experience.

Now, as I sat on the orange couch, again waiting anxiously for Deserter's Songs to begin, my experience at Mikey's was still fresh in my mind and ears. How would my system compare?

When the music emerged, I heard sinuous strings sweeping across a big, wide soundstage; percussive acoustic guitar churning from the left channel; eerily realistic tambourine coming from the right channel; bass and drums at the rear of the stage, presented in a way that was clear, powerful, and easy to follow; that surreal bowed saw wavering and warbling, sounding like a choir of weeping spirits; and, finally, the fragile, childlike voice singing "Time, all th' long red lines / that take control / of all th' smokelike streams / that flow into your dreams . . ."

I was very happily surprised. Whether it was because I was back in Jersey City, in my own room, surrounded by my own things, or because I'd been so eager and hopeful, or because I was high on winter moonlight, I can't be certain—but as I sat there listening again to "Holes," I couldn't help but think that the experience wasn't merely as good as what I'd heard earlier that day at Mikey's—it was better. I considered shooting off delirious text messages to Natalie and Nicole, raving about the wonderful sound and music, but decided against pestering them with more hi-fi talk. Yes, Mikey's system had created a bigger overall picture with bigger individual images, but my modest system was delivering all the tonal color, drama, scale, spatial cues, and smooth, easy flow that I could have hoped for.

I didn't let myself get too excited. After all, I was listening to a mint copy of a new remastering of Deserter's Songs, while Mikey's original pressing was old and well worn. And I reminded myself that the Parasound Zphono•USB was completely new to me. But still! My system sounded better than I could recall ever hearing it. It sounded better than $400,000. What was this Zphono all about?

A little lesson
I walked into John Atkinson's office one day and asked him to tell me about phono preamplifiers. "What the heck do they do, anyway, and what makes one different from another?" Clearly and succinctly, John gave me a little lesson on RIAA and gain. He even drew a block diagram with a couple of triangles and some pretty, squiggly lines. My boss is so cool.

Back in the hip 1950s, the Record Industry Association of America created the RIAA curve, an equalization standard that adjusted certain frequencies at the record-cutting stage, attenuating low frequencies and emphasizing higher ones, in order to fit as much music as possible onto an LP and increase the format's dynamic range. This process is called pre-emphasis. When pre-emphasized records are played back, however, the altered frequencies need to be re-equalized in order to match the original recording. Reapplication of the RIAA curve, or de-emphasis, is the first job of any phono preamplifier. Wild, right? (For an in-depth discussion of RIAA LP equalization, see Keith Howard's awesome "Cut and Thrust.")

A phono preamp's second job is to provide additional amplification, or voltage gain, to the very small signals produced by phono cartridges. While moving-magnet designs like my Rega Elys 2 do provide a stronger signal than the moving-coil cartridges that Art Dudley and most of my other audiophile friends prefer, the signal is still far weaker than that produced by a CD player.

The ways in which an engineer can implement those two goals are limited primarily by skill, imagination, and budgetary constraints. Hence the world sees both a $26,000 Ypsilon VPS-100 and a $349 Parasound Zphono•USB—wildly different components designed to do pretty much the same thing.

From bowling alley to listening room
Parasound introduced their affordable Z series in 1996, the year Lisa Marie Presley filed for divorce from Michael Jackson. I was 19 years old and could have used a good stereo in my dorm room, but I didn't then know anything about hi-fi. If you're reading this in your dorm room, you're way ahead of where I was at your age. If you're reading this in your mansion, you're way ahead of where I am now.

The Z series is now in its third generation. The Zphono•USB measures 9.5" wide by 2" high by 10" deep and weighs 5 lbs. Its appearance is simple, no-nonsense, and, like all of Parasound's Z products, dominated by its front-panel rack-mounting holes, which suggest use in pro-audio environments. I sort of hate those rack-mounting holes. I asked Parasound's president, Richard Schram, about the product's look.

Schram explained that the half-width rack-mount design emerged from a Parasound-engineered, AMF-branded mike preamp installed in all of AMF's bowling centers in the late 1980s. "We've continued the rack-mount design because the products are so popular in custom installations and are often 'problem solvers' where high performance is required and real estate is limited."

Footnote 1: Parasound Products, Inc., 2250 McKinnon Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94124. Tel: (415) 397-7100. Fax: (415) 397-0144. Web:

jaxwired's picture


I really enjoy your coverage of the entry level products.  Having tried many budget offerings myself, I have found that Audioquest cables are not among my favorites.  A company little known in the US, but probably the most widely used in the UK is The Chord Company.  I use all there cables and they beat all comers and I've compared many.  I'd love to see you evaluate some of their cables.  I think they would replace the audioquest in your regular system if you tried them.

BTW, love your writing.  Keep it up!

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thanks very much. I'm currently working on a review of Kimber PBJ interconnects and 8VS speaker cable. I'll add the Chord cable to the list, and maybe I can get to them in an issue later this summer.

DNA16S's picture

I have several entry-level audioquest interconnects (Tower and Golden Gate). Recently I bought Chord Clearaway X speakers cables and I can assure that are astonishing cables. In fact, I'm going to buy a Chord Clearaway RCA or a Qed Reference 40 RCA and compare...

Kettch's picture

Hi Stephen,

I also enjoy reading your columns. Have you heard of the Dayton amps? Specifically the Dayton DTA-1 and the Dayton DTA-100. Both are T-amps and I really would like to read a review of yours about these equipment. Have you also tried out the anti cables from Paul Speltz?

Stephen Mejias's picture

Hello Kettch.

Thank you.  Yes, I've heard of the Dayton amps.  I would like to listen to them and the AntiCables at some point in the future.

TreAdidas's picture

+1 on those Dayton amps.  I thought about buying one just for the hell of it.  Give ‘em a whirl.

As you’ve pointed out in previous entries, Hi-Fi is becoming cool again.  People are interested but leery of talk of multi-thousand dollar cables.  It scares music lovers away.  What I find with most of my peers (30 years old give or take) is that they are starting from scratch and the prospect of spending much more than $500 is a deal breaker.  So they revert to the generic iPod speaker set to fill their living rooms.  And I revert to my epic face palm.  Pairing that Dayton DTA-100a amp with the PSB Alpha (or my personal favorite - the Acoustic Energy Aegis One  (now available as the new and improved the NeoV2 One)) and using the ubiquitous computer as the source just might make it happen for lots of music lovin’ folks.

While we’re talking cables, I’ll throw my budget choice out there as well.  I have been very happy with my purchases from them.  This place is indispensable when seeking to build a system for below $500.

I love this column.  It has been one of many factors that have shifted my audio pursuits from throwing as much money as I can muster at the system to seeing how much I can get given arbitrary budget constraints and then spending the balance on music!  … and by the way I bought that Mercury Rev record.  Keep it up!

Stephen Mejias's picture

It has been one of many factors that have shifted my audio pursuits from throwing as much money as I can muster at the system to seeing how much I can get given arbitrary budget constraints and then spending the balance on music!

That's awesome! I'm so happy to hear it. And I'm glad you enjoyed the Mercury Rev album -- it's truly a modern classic.

I will definitely check out the Blue Jeans Cables at some point in the future. And I'd also like to hear one of Acoustic Energy's budget models.

craw787's picture

What I want to know is which is really better, the Zphono USB or the Zphono.  I mean is there much difference in sound to warrant the price difference, considering the only additional feature that attracts me the the zphono usb is the mono switch.  I am considering buying one of these pre-amps, but I haven't found a review comparing both for their sound qualities.

I hate spending the extra cash if the sound is equivelent.

I guess all it comes down to is that 'm looking for the best sound on a budget and don't want to buy the same thing twice.

Great article.  Thanks.


mike a's picture

Have you compared the parasound to some of Sam favs, the music fidelity vlps?

Love your column, my variation on your approach, any one can find a good $60 bottle of Pinot Noir, the real challenge is to find the good one for $20.It makes your column so relevant but also so hard at the same time. But of course, as you have discovered, there are so many great "budget" priced components.

As others have said, the $5000 you save, get off the couch, and go SEE LIVE music, it is the art and performance, not all just the sound.